Chuck Swindoll shared this story in one of his messages. In the northeastern United States, codfish are a big commercial business. There is a market for eastern cod all over, especially in the sections farthest removed from the northeastern coastline. But the public demand poses a problem for the shippers. At first, they froze the cod, then shipped them elsewhere, but freezing them takes away much of the flavor. So they experimented with shipping them alive in tanks of seawater. But that proved even worse. Not only did the cod still lose their flavor, but they became soft and mushy. The texture was seriously affected.
Finally, some creative person solved the problem in a most innovative manner. The codfish were placed in the tank of water along with their natural enemy – the catfish. From the time the cod left the East coast until it arrived at its western-most destination, those ornery catfish chased the cod all over the tank. And, you guessed it, when the cod arrived at the market, they were as fresh as when they were first caught. There was no loss of flavor nor was the texture affected. If anything, they were better than before.
What is true about the codfish is also true about the group of people who call themselves disciples of Christ. The group is known as “the church.”
Have you ever wondered what the dictionary meaning of the word “church” is? I suppose being a native English speaker you have always known the meaning of that word and have never felt the need to look it up in a dictionary. But not having English as my mother tongue, I often need to use the dictionary. If you look up the word in a dictionary, yes, even a secular dictionary, it will tell you that the word “church” is derived from the Greek word “kyriako,” meaning “of the Lord,” “belonging to the Lord,” or “a group of people that belong to the Lord.”
Now, if the church belongs to the Lord, He could have arranged it in such a way that the church could have thrived in very friendly environments and could have lived happily ever after until taken up to be with Him for eternity.
But for obvious reasons, the Lord put the church in a hostile environment in the world. And from the very inception of the church, she has faced opposition and has gone through, and continues to go through, some extremely difficult circumstances. And through it all, not only has she survived, but she has thrived and grown by leaps and bounds, and the gates of hell have not been, and will never be able to, prevail against her.
Even before the inception of the New Testament church, the Old Testament group of the faithful went through the same experience. The author of the Book of Hebrews provides a summary statement of that fact:
… and others experienced mocking and scourging, yes also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground (Hebrews 11:36-38).384
Jesus often talked about the persecution of the Old Testament saints, “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them” (Luke 11:47).
Similarly, Stephen laid the same charge on the Jews who stoned him to death:
…You are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become (Acts 7:51-52).
Jesus repeatedly warned His disciples that they would be persecuted and face severe opposition to their witnessing. Right at the onset of His ministry, He told them:
Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).
Speaking about the things to come, He told the disciples:
But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake (Luke 21:12).
And to His disciples in the Upper Room discourse:
Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. These things I have spoken to you, that you may be kept from stumbling. They will make you outcasts from the synagogues; but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God (John 15:20; 16:1-2).
And so, now it comes just as they were forewarned, just as it happened in the Old Testament. The heart of the man is the same throughout all generations. They embrace the evil and oppose the good, and as Jesus said: “And these things they will do, because they have not known the Father, or Me” (John 16:3).
The first recorded incident of the opposition of the gospel is the arrest and trial of Peter and John for preaching the gospel, after they healed the lame beggar who was begging in front of the temple gate.
The Holy Sprit had come, and the disciples were filled with power and with a burning zeal to preach the gospel. Thousands had been saved, and all the people were filled with awe; the disciples were praising God and finding favor with all the people. “Many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Acts 2:41, 42, 47).
A particular miracle noted is that of healing the lame beggar. Notice Peter’s words: “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene walk” (Acts 3:6). “And with a leap, he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8). And people “were filled with wonder and amazement at what happened” (Acts 3:10). This leads in to Peter’s second sermon and Peter and John’s arrest in chapter four.
Why are they arrested? As Peter mentioned “… for a benefit done to a sick man” (Acts 4:9). This reminds us of the similar situation that Jesus was in. When Jesus asserted His deity and the Jews took up stones to stone Him, He asked, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning me?” (John 10:31-32).
This shows that persecution of the church is usually not for the bad things done. Most of the time it is good things that bring opposition. One of the reasons for this is that the evil works of the world are put in the light of the righteous works of the church. As Jesus said:
And this is the Judgment that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20).
Of course, the other main reason for the world persecuting the church is that they have not known the Savior or the Father Who sent Him to the world. As Jesus told His disciples:
But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me (John.15:22).
These things I have spoken to you, that you may be kept from stumbling. They will make you outcasts from the synagogue; but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. And these things they will do, because they have not known the Father, or Me (John.16:1-3).
Why do you think the United States is hated by many of the nations around the world? Are they jealous of our prosperity? Many of the nations that hate us most are some of the richest nations in the world. The Muslim nations in the Middle East wallow in luxury. They import labor from countries like India and technology from countries like the United States and get all their work done while they spend most of their time merry making and partying. The lavish lifestyle of many of the people in these oil-producing nations is probably not much different from that of King Solomon.
Or, do they hate us because, like Big Brother, we go around the world doing good? No, they like our billions of dollars of foreign aid. Many of the people from the United States are involved in foreign nations working in community development projects and running leprosariums. The natives love to receive all the help they can get and at the same time hate the people who give it. Why?
The main reason the United States is hated by many nations around the world is that in spite of our spiritual and moral bankruptcy, most of the people around the world consider this nation a Christian nation. They don’t hate us for the good we do, but they hate us because, from their perspective, it is done in the Name of Jesus, for our love for the Lord, and as Jesus spelled out, “these things they will do, because they have not known the Father, or Me” (John.16:3).
The response to the arrest of Peter and John is noteworthy. First of all, they respond to the authorities in boldness. When Peter and John are summoned before the authorities and commanded not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, their response is: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the Judge, for we cannot stop speaking what we have heard and seen” (Acts 4:18-20).
During another incident, Peter and the apostles are arrested and the Sanhedrin tells them: “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). Peter’s response is: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This is the kind of response of the church throughout the Book of Acts.
Secondly, they prayed (Acts 4:24-30). First, they praised God for fulfilling His plan of man’s salvation through Jesus and then their prayer was: “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy servants many speak Thy word with all confidence” (Acts 4:29).
Their prayer is not that the opposition would stop and they could live a peaceful life. Instead their prayer is that God will grant them boldness and confidence to speak His Word in spite of the opposition.
Another major event, and one of the most noteworthy concerning persecution, is Stephen’s death by stoning. Stephen’s sermon before he is killed reviews the extensive history of Israel’s rebellion and proofs from the Old Testament Scriptures about Jesus being Messiah. In no uncertain terms, he tells the Jews about their history of rebellion:
You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you now have become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it (Acts 7:51-53).
And immediately Stephen is stoned to death.
There is violent and widespread persecution of the church by Saul. After Stephen’s martyrdom, “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem,” and “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:1-3).
Saul’s hatred for Christians is seen in his determination to kill anybody associated with the name of Jesus:
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).
The disciples were fully aware of Saul’s intent and of the fact that he had official permission from the Jewish authorities (Acts 9:14, 21). Later Paul himself tells about his violent intent against Christians (Acts 22:5; 26:9-11).
After the Damascus road conversion experience, the violent persecutor Saul becomes a zealous supporter of the cause of Christ, and he becomes the persecuted Paul. Paul probably was one of those early Jewish Christians who suffered the most, and most of the persecution came from his own Jewish “brethren.” He himself later recounts in one of his letters:
Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten time without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Much of these are physical hardships and natural disasters that he had faced. But he does mention imprisonments, repeated beatings, and receiving lashes, and being stoned by Jews and “false brethren.” Some of these incidents are found recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 9:23; 16:22-23; 19:23ff)
It is interesting to note that much of the opposition to the church in the Book of Acts came from the Sadducees, through the Sanhedrin. Although there were Pharisees as members in the Sanhedrin, it was controlled by the Sadducees. Along with the priests and the captain of the temple, they arrested Peter and John and put them into prison (Acts 4). A little later they arrested Peter and other apostles and took counsel to kill them (5:17, 33). Their hostile attitude persisted throughout the Book of Acts. Sadducees were the ones who were involved in much of the opposition and persecution of Paul.
Although there were several leading Pharisees who became believers (e.g., Gamaliel), there is no record of a Sadducee being joined to the church.
One of the main reasons for their opposition was that the apostles preached the resurrection. Luke notes about the first incident of the apostles’ arrest: “being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Luke 4:2). But even after the arrest and threat from the Sanhedrin, “with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33).
Paul’s main theme of preaching was “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). In his sermon on Mars Hill, he said that God, “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” which created an uproar and division: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” (Acts 17:32).
Testifying before Felix, Paul had the same theme of resurrection in focus:
But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law, and that is written in the prophets; having a hope in God which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (Acts 24:14-15).
Paul tells Felix that the Sanhedrin would not find anything else against him:
Other than for this one statement which I shouted out while standing among them, “For the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you today” (Acts 24:21).
The attitude of the Roman government toward the church in the early history was out of indifference, at least most of the time. The main reason for this was that the Roman government in the early stages treated Christianity as a sect of Judaism and so it received an official sanction.
There is no involvement of the Roman authorities in the arrest of Peter and John (chapter 4) and subsequently in the arrest of Peter and other apostles (Acts 5:17-22). The Roman authorities are conspicuously absent in the incident of the great riot, which resulted in the death of Stephen even though under the Roman law the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to condemn someone to death (John 18:31).
In Paul’s case, there are many examples where the Roman authorities rescued him from the Jewish mob and in many places directly or indirectly helped him to carry out his missionary activities. Their attitude towards him is summed up in the statement Festus made to King Agrippa: “Jews appealed to me, both at Jerusalem and here, loudly declaring that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death” (Acts 25:24-25). Similarly, the Roman commander Claudius Lysias had written to Felix: “I found him to be accused over questions about their Law, but under no accusation deserving death or imprisonment” (Acts 23:29). Even when Paul is in the Roman prison he is given full freedom to meet with anybody he wants, and the Book of Acts ends with this note:
And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters, and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered (Acts 28:30-31).
The persecution of the church under the brief rule of Herod Agrippa I was an exception to the general attitude of indifference by the Roman authorities (Acts 12:1-25). However, as Luke clearly indicates this was a gesture of favor to the Jewish authorities (Luke 12:1-3).
The untimely and unusual death of King Herod Agrippa I provides a good summary statement to what happens when the church is persecuted:
And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the Word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied (Acts 12:23-24).
The persecution of the church in the beginning of church history took the church to the uttermost parts of the world. The church began in Jerusalem but did not remain confined there.
The initial persecution in chapters 4-7 took the church from Jerusalem to Samaria:
Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. And Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them (Acts 8:3-5).
And then to the uttermost parts of the world; not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles:
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except the Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord (17:19-21).
French Arrington, in his commentary in the Book of Acts, notes:
Already persecution was making the church truly a missionary church. Rather than being by design, the first missionary work was the by-product of the persecution. The stoning of Stephen ushered in a fearless persecution of the church that scattered all the believers “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles”. The fortunes of the church within Palestine can be traced in Acts 8:4-11:18 and then outside in Acts 11:19-28:31. So the church reached beyond Palestine proper and beyond Judaism and preached the gospel to the Samaritans, to the Ethiopian eunuch, and to Cornelius and his friends. These were the steps toward the wide inclusion of Gentiles, especially marked by the labors of believers who traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (Acts 11:19).
As the church moved out from the confines of Jerusalem, it began to fulfill the Great Commission. The enemies of Christ sought to destroy the church but persecution only led to wider and fuller proclamation of the gospel. The believers could have been satisfied to settle down in Jerusalem, but God forced the church’s hand and used persecution to fulfill Acts 1:8.385
The repeated refrain in the Book of Acts is, “And the word of God kept on spreading and the number of the disciples continued to increase…” (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31).
And it continues to grow even today. There is no nation on the face of the earth where the gospel has not reached. Nothing can stop the progress of the church. John Rutherfurd writes:
Persecution showed that the Christian faith is immortal even in this world. Of Christ’s kingdom there shall be no end. “Hammer away, ye hostile bands, your hammers break, God’s altar stands”. Pagan Rome, Babylon the Great, as it is called by the apostle John in the Apocalypse, tried hard to destroy the church of Christ; Babylon was drunk with blood of the saints. God allowed this tyranny to exist for 300 years, and the blood of His children was shed like water. Why was it necessary that the church should have so terrible and so prolonged an experience of suffering? It was in order to convince the world that though the kings of the earth gather themselves against the Lord and against His Christ, yet all that they can do is in vain. God is in the midst of Zion; He shall help her, and that right early. The Christian church, as if suspended between heaven and earth, had no need of other help than that of the unseen and Divine hand, which at every moment held it up and kept it from falling. Never was the church more free, never stronger, never more flourishing, never more extensive in its growth, than in the days of persecution.386
Remember the definition of the word “church”? It is “belonging to the Lord.” If the church is the group of people that belongs to the Lord, there is no power that can destroy it. As Jesus Himself said to His disciples: “the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matthew 16: 18), because as Nehemiah reminded his fellow wall-builders: “Remember the Lord who is great and awesome” (Nehemiah 4:14). Or, as Gamaliel advised the Jewish council: “If this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God” (5:38-39). Paul encourages believers in his letter to the Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?” and,
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31, 38, 39).
1. Stand firm and continue to proclaim the gospel.
2. Keep in prayer and depend on the Lord’s power.
3. Be prepared with our spiritual armor, because:
Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
The church will stand, no matter what. But when the Son of Man comes, will He find us faithful in doing the work that He has left His church to do?
383 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 80 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Imanuel G. Christian on May 26, 2002.
384 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, ÓThe Lockman foundation, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, La Habra, California.
385 French L. Arrington, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988, pp.84-85).
386 John Rutherfurd, “Persecution” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1939, 1956, 4:2328).